Natural breakneck speed, determination, a smart and experienced jockey, excellent connections, and a little bit of destiny are required for any thoroughbred to win the ever elusive Triple Crown.
And its possible 141st Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah, the latest contender in a long line of near-Triple Crown whiffs that stretches back nearly 40 years, certainly has everything going for him right now.
But by comparing and contrasting his times at the Derby with the last three horses to take down both the Derby and Preakness Stakes and then gun for the Belmont Stakes, it’s quite clear American Pharoah will have to run the best two races of his young life in order to sew up the first Triple Crown since 1978.
There’s several good reasons for why no thoroughbred has accomplished the feat since Affirmed. Yet the simplest reason boils down to whether or not a contender has the stamina and skills to grind out the grueling final quarter mile at the Belmont Stakes. And you can tell whether a horse is capable of pulling it off by their performances, strong or not, in the Derby and Preakness.
Since Affirmed sewed up the last Triple Crown in 1978, 13 horses have won both the Derby and Preakness before faltering at the much-longer 1 1/2-mile Belmont.
The good news for American Pharoah is that he’s right on par with the last three to run all three legs of the Triple Crown (California Chrome last year, Big Brown in 2008, and Smarty Jones in 2004), but that doesn’t necessarily translate into success next month at the Belmont should he manage to take down the Preakness.
Those three present the likely gamut of outcomes for American Pharoah should he slip up at the Belmont. Staring down a field loaded with contenders who didn’t run in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, California Chrome fell to fourth place at the Belmont. Smarty Jones came closer than any other Triple Crown threat as the runner-up to Birdstone. And due to a loose shoe on his left hind leg, Big Brown didn’t even finish the Belmont.
But before those close calls and the errant misfortunes, all three had solid showings at the Derby and Preakness.
At 23.14 seconds, American Pharoah actually started out of the Derby gate for the first quarter-mile better than Big Brown and was only a tenth of a second off of California Chrome’s 23.04 start. However, Smarty Jones set a blistering pace at 22.99.
Then jockey Victor Espinoza held American Pharoah just behind the leaders Firing Line and Dortmund on the first turn and the start of the back stretch. In that half-mile run, American Pharoah first clocked in at 24.1 and picked up a bit at 23.95 at the three-quarter-mile mark. During the last turn before the home stretch, the three-year-old colt slowed significantly at the mile mark at 25.16. Then, even though he fought off Firing Line’s tremendous kick, American Pharoah registered a much slower 26.57 mark to the finish line.
But that last half mile push by American Pharoah was actually highly comparable to both California Chrome and Smarty Jones. Also ridden by Espinoza that day in Churchill Downs, California Chrome went 25.65 and 26.21 in the final two quarter-miles. Smarty Jones was a bit slower than both at 25.55 and 26.71, but he also banked on that tremendous start and won by 2 3/4 lengths.
It’s possible American Pharoah doesn’t possess that exciting home stretch kick, but if he and Espinoza can register a sub-20 second time down the stretch at Pimlico then it’s on to the Belmont. Smarty Jones roared to 19.15 time and won by an astonishing 11 1/2 lengths. Big Brown was even faster at 19.08 and was 5 1/4 lengths ahead of runner-up Macho Again, and California Chrome finished up at 19.19 for a 1 1/2 lengths victory.
Indeed, lots will have to fall into place for American Pharoah to clinch the Preakness, including his health, overall mood, and Espinzoa and Bob Baffert’s strategy. But his times show American Pharoah has the ability to pull off what the last three contenders haven’t.